Sunday, 12 January 2014
The building above is Birmingham's new public library. Isn't it beautiful? It looks just as good inside, too.
In raising this marvellous building --the single largest public building project in Britain for several years--the city of Birmingham defied two pervasive trends. First--unlike most of the other striking buildings put up over the past decade--the library is for public, not private/corporate use; and second, Birmingham is investing in a library while most councils are closing them down.
I admit that an author enthusing over libraries is a bit like a dog enthusiastically devouring food: if it didn't happen, you'd suspect something was wrong. Like most avid readers, I was taken to the local library before I could even toddle, and every week of my childhood I came away with a handful of books. Oh, I soon discovered bookshops as well, but bookshops are restaurants or foodie outlets, providing exotic meals: libraries are the family dining table. They provide reading matter day in, day out, whether or not you have funds. They provide the staple food that keeps the mind alive.
Or they used to. Increasingly we are told that, in this digital age, they aren't as important as they once were; that now people can look things up online, and order anything they like from Amazon. Library budgets are an easy target for a cash-strapped council. All over Britain libraries are being closed down; even when they stay open, the funds they have available to buy new books are limited. Hours of opening are wrenched about; every penny has to be justified; 'unpopular' books are ruthlessly sold off because of limited space.
The digital argument is disingenuous. Yes, you can look things up online--if you have a computer. If you don't, the only place you're likely to get online for free is your local public library--if it hasn't been closed down. As for buying books--alas, they aren't cheap. The amount I spend on books makes me value libraries more, not less.
'A library,' said the philanthropist Andrew Carnegie, 'outranks any other one thing a community can do to benefit its people. It is a never failing spring in the desert,' and 'There is not such a cradle of democracy upon the earth as the Free Public Library.' He put his money where his mouth was, too, and endowed hundreds of libraries across Britain--including my local branch library which just celebrated its centenary.
Birmingham's beautiful new library has been packed every time I've visited it. I hope it prospers; I hope that it, too, will one day celebrate its centenary. A world bereft of libraries would be a desert indeed.